Good Old Street League
1:57 PM EDT on July 1, 2021
This excerpt from the book, The Most Fun Thing: Dispatches From A Skateboard Life, which is available for pre-order now, is published with the permission of Hachette.
I can recall July 2015, sitting at a friend’s house in Mid-City, Los Angeles, drawing lines in my notebook. It was my second trip West of the year—in May, I’d ridden the California Zephyr from Chicago, arriving in Davis 56 hours later. Why I’d done this was, first, because I’m a romantic, and second, because my father had a part-time consultant gig at UC Davis, where he kept an apartment and, more importantly, where Andrew Reynolds had filmed the magnificent kickflip ender of his 2010 Stay Gold part. So, it was a 2,400-mile pilgrimage to stand before an ivy-covered and trail-rutted hillside between an academic building and the sidewalk below. I marveled, breathed deeply, and snapped photos, knowing it was worth it. I watched teens skate a nine-stair rail outside the chemistry building, saw one of them front feeble it, clapped, and went back home to write. Later, I took another train into San Francisco and skated China Banks and Fort Miley and felt the jolt of uncanny time, spiraling me into my teenage dreams of these selfsame places. Weave of temporalities indeed—I jotted extensive notes that felt profoundly fruitful and traced my day-long walks on a foldout tourist map. I suppose all of this is romantic, too.
I’d come to Los Angeles for a second week of similar work and tourism. I looked at the sharp foliage in Santa Monica, stared at shops and gas pumps and overdressed visitors lining up for afternoon tapings at CBS, sweating in the sun. I stood outside the SAG building on Wilshire and walked under the Levitated Mass, and now K would arrive the following day, at which point my fruitful research trip would transform into a family trip to see my in-laws in Valencia. So I was feeling the creep of impatience as I sat there drawing lines. I’d gone to college not far from here, and it was easy to recall the question I took away from a certain Wittgenstein tutorial my senior year: What is it, really, to be the way that we mean when we say “waiting”? There is no action that accompanies such a state, no behaviors to signify it. One can perform waiting by checking a watch, glancing quickly to the door, or phone, or what have you. But what is the difference between sitting at that table and drawing lines when I’m waiting, versus when I’m just sitting at the table drawing lines? It is a term we agree to use, a language game.
It is also an internal state of being that can, at times, alter my perceptions of worldly phenomena like the ticking of my host’s old clock, the silence of my phone. A professional skateboarder and friend had promised that he’d be in touch “sometime in the morning.” Eventually he and I would go out skateboarding, or so I believed. One never knows, really, with skateboarders. They are not people on whose arrival and life performance I generally rely. And yet theirs are the shoulders onto which Nike and Monster Energy and the so-called International Skateboarding Federation have loaded the task of stabilizing skateboarding’s rocky track record with organized competition. There are, after all, only so many skateboarders in the world to sell to. The hunger for contest is a much lower and far more common denominator. I, for example, can cop to standing once on the banks of a river as a thin but fanatical crowd cheered a race of rubber duckies down the rapids. It was not a fanaticism for one ducky over another that kept me there, but the contest of it. Like everyone else at that river’s edge, I was cheering for the chance we’d been given to cheer.
Competition is a form (a how) certain to generate an audience beyond the niche and sub-niches of whatever happens to be the competition’s material (its what). Organized competition regulates and manages desire, flattening it from the spikes and troughs of human behavior into a form more predictable, which is to say useful. Which is also to say harvestable, profitable, or, if you like, exploitable.
Anyway, my friend, whose lateness was totally unsurprising, had graced me with some free time to draw lines in my notebook, one after the next, until I found myself looking at what I’d drawn and thinking of Berlin, a city that is home to the world’s best-trained dogs, dogs that will traipse obediently and joyfully behind a bike, watching for their keeper’s hand to give the sign to cross a busy street. Where bicyclists have, as a man told me, a conversation with drivers, not a war. And where they’ve built the confusing, beautiful, unphotographable Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, a name which is itself a surprise, the starkness of that signifier and the admission it contains: murdered. The monument, somehow, had appeared on the page beneath me as I sat there waiting.
It is a monument that one comes upon and experiences first from without. Soon, this experience unfolds into a choice: Will I walk into and among its stone pillars? The monument forces this choice by way of obvious invitation. And if you do descend into it, you’ll likely discover among the pillars children running and laughing in a way that, at first, feels just exceptionally wrong and out of both place and taste. Then it dawns on you that the designers of the memorial had to know this would happen. There is, after all, a slight gradient to its ground that compels acceleration. Scour the world complete and I bet you will find no better venue for a game of hide-and-go-seek. Which means the juxtaposition is not only unsettling but deliberately so—we turn a corner and, by design, confront human play among countless tons of stony death. The play is a part, if a contingent one, of the sculpture. We are part of the sculpture.
Eventually my friend in Los Angeles called, we met up, and I drove us to the University of Southern California’s Galen Center, where I’d been told my name was on a list for tickets to today’s scheduled Street League event. To have this kind of access was exciting enough to override whatever reluctance I had to finally watching a Street League event. As I struggled to wrap up a novel that did justice to this strange thing of skateboarding, the perks of my so-called skate journalism were a welcome reminder that things did achieve completion, and from that completion, sometimes, reward.
From its origin, the half-pipe was always a natural vessel for competition. Here is your playing field, here is a block of time to perform whatever feats you can. You do you and we’ll judge whose run we like best. But for decades, the tempestuous desires of street skateboarding resisted taming, or rather training. The essential brilliance of Street League was really only a matter of patience. Rob Dyrdek and his partners understood that what was birthed in the golden era of early and mid-90s street skating, those hideous and hypertechnical developments, had in the intervening decades evolved to become not only spectacular but reliable enough that they could spackle competition around them. It took skaters reaching a certain threshold of talent in order for the system to work. The only question now was whether the skaters had achieved that plateau of predictability such that fans would tune in to the format as a source for the exciting unpredictability of sport.
Attend a Street League contest event and you’ll note that they sure don’t skimp on reminders of excitement. From where we eventually came to sit inside the Galen Center at the first exciting stop of this exciting sixth season of Street League, once the lights dimmed and the screens came alive with portraits and highlights of our athletes from previous seasons, it was, in fact, exciting, despite my long backlog of cynicism and doubt. I mean that truly. I have been to World Series games, have sat in the United Center and heard the fierce devotion of Tommy Edwards calling “Your Chicago Bulls!” over The Alan Parsons Project. And if there was one SLS-based surprise for me, it was how genuinely energized and hyped I was by the event’s prompt, sudden start.
Once we’d settled into the rhythms of the contest, though, my attention strayed from the predictable skating on the course to the hubbub around it. The timing of our beer runs happened to align with the Crailtap camp’s, and my friend, the professional, knew them a bit. So, I was able to meet Rudy Johnson and Rick Howard, men whom I had spent my entire adolescence staring at until my VHS tapes gave and then broke. I watched big Nick Diamond extend one arm to shoot a goofy selfie like the thousand other goofy selfies in the arena. Ryan Sheckler posed statue-like for a dozen photos featuring his same lifeless, million-dollar smile. That Christian Hosoi’s wife was wearing her husband’s rising sun Vans Sk8 His wasn’t surprising, but did strike me as a minor and sweet detail. I was unsurprised but amused to see the other Huston siblings get stopped by children to sign their incidental names onto posters of Nyjah, their brother.
As far as the stage itself, well. There is still the principle challenge confronted by all attempts to regulate and market skateboarding to a world that doesn’t understand it and finds it sort of silly. I mean that age-old puzzle of valuation, difficulty, style, and taste. Despite a host of commendable efforts, human desire remains a slippery thing to manage. One spectator will hunger differently than the next. And so, then, how to determine a thing’s value? How to regulate and apply something like a typical sport’s score?
“Nine is too much,” said the aging Rasta to my left when Evan Smith, as the broadcasters say, entered the nine club. “What he’s doing is a, what, like a vert trick. Half-pipe trick. Street skate is about the flip.”
Earlier, my friend and I had run into Evan in the Galen Center hallways. Maybe, I thought, the judges were taking into consideration that Evan had (perhaps) eaten psychedelic mushrooms? And I found myself thinking again of the Wittgensteinian framework of language games and states of being, of the phenomenology of waiting. What was it, really, to be in the state we call skateboarding? Obviously, the activity presumes the state of being—to do it is to be in the state of it. But consider writers and other artists for whom everything is work. To live a literary life is to be writing even as you are reading, as you are walking; it is an encompassing and inclusive hermeneutics: all of living informs the development of the work.
So, I wonder. When I watch a skateboarding film, can it be said that I am skateboarding? Anyone who identifies as a skateboarder can describe the strange, poltergeist-like phenomenon of feeling one’s own body move along with the figure on screen, a kind of somatic empathy or mutualized motion—this happens particularly when we watch someone skate a half-pipe or bowl. So embedded, or rather embodied, are the motions of pumping the curves of transition, so ingrained are the shifts of weight and bend of legs required of these ramps that to watch someone else is, in a very real way, to feel your own body infected. Something more than just watching is taking place. And what is that something if not skateboarding?
I am suggesting that the obvious lines are in fact blurred. Am I skateboarding when I take a break from the activity to sit down in the grass and watch my friends? I am still of the session, sharing the world with my friends, am I not? I holler encouragement, I react, my body reels and rolls as they try and fail, and fail, and fail. And when they land, I exalt. How is this not skateboarding?
Or during the car ride on the way to the spot, or the train ride downtown as we discuss other media we’ve consumed and imagining what we’ll do once we arrive. When does skateboarding begin in this case? At the car door or train station? When I tell K, Hey, I’m going out skating, and take the steps down to the street? Or when I wake up and think to the day that’s ahead? Or that constant activity of my rear mind that keeps me looking through any car’s window with a winged predator’s eye, noting stairs, a granite ledge, and considering run-up space and traffic patterns? The more we acknowledge the blur of lines that supposedly mark the (obvious) beginning and ending of a session, the harder we have to work to see skateboarding as anything short of a way of being.
The best thing about watching Evan Smith was knowing that he might have been on mushrooms—the possibility of such a subversion was one of a handful of off-stage skateboard amusements that made the contest palatable. The Jumbotron, the format of the contest, the empty seats prestocked with signs care of the event’s major sponsors and their endorsed athletes—these were market artifacts relatively recent to the world of skateboarding.
Well. “Algebra,” wrote John Barth, “is easier to talk about than fire.” Like a lot of Street League stops, the Los Angeles winner would not be decided until the final trick. The competitions they’ve arranged have all been uniformly tight, and will continue to be so long as their proprietary scoring algorithm functions as it is designed to. On this night, I heard later, because by then we’d vamoosed, Luan Oliveira would win and be cheered by the fans. Nyjah Huston would lose and find himself booed. I’ll leave up to you to decide which of these, if either, is surprising.